Saturday, June 12, 2010

Reflections on Free Will, Sin and Discipline in the Church

"If anyone wants to damage the Landlord's [That is to say, God] character… he ought to say that the Landlord is an inveterate gambler.  That would not be true, but it would be plausible, for there is no denying that the Landlord does take risks….

The Landlord has taken the risk of working the country with free tenants instead of slaves in chain gangs: and as they are free there is no way of making it impossible for them to go into forbidden places and eat forbidden fruits.  (CS Lewis.  Pilgrim's Regress.  page 180)


One of the difficult things to remember is that because God has made man with free will, he has the ability to use this free will to choose things which are against the command of God.  This does not mean man has the right to use his free will for good or for evil, but because God has made man free, the approaches the Church can use in dealing with the sinners are limited.

I believe this is a point which is forgotten.  We see notorious sinners within the Church and we want to know why they aren't thrown out.  We forget that the cases where the Church does declare excommunication are limited to certain sins of extreme gravity, and not for every mortal sin.  This seems to be especially forgotten today, where the spirit of rebellion is so defiant against Church teaching, and many grumble that Vatican II "caused this."

The Church is not Becoming More Lax with Vatican II

For those who would argue a division of before and after Vatican II where before all was well and after it was a disaster, I think it useful to cite from the Pre-Vatican II book The Question Box [Sadly out of print] which was originally published in 1903 and republished in 1929 (original spellings, syntax and grammar of that time are maintained):

If your Church is a Holy Church, why do you allow adulterers, drunkards and corrupt politicians to be members in good standing?  Should not moral character be insisted upon as a qualification of church membership?  Why are there so many poor and ignorant in your Church?

Because the Church is the universal Kingdom of God, divinely commissioned to teach Christ's Gospel to all men — sinner and saint, rich and poor, cultured and uncultured — alike.  "There is neither Jew nor Greek there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female.  For you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal iii. 28).  The Church is not a Church of the elect, as Wyclif taught or Calvin; nor is she an exclusive club for the outwardly respectable and the well-to-do.

Sinners are rarely excommunicated from her fold, and only for some flagrant sin, just as traitors and convicted criminals are debarred by the state from citizenship.  The adulterer, the drunkard or the corrupt politician is not in "good standing" for he is not permitted to receive Communion until he manifests a heartfelt sorrow for his sins in the Sacrament of Penance.

Christ came into the world for sinners: The angel Gabriel said to Mary: "Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins" (Matt. i. 21).  Christ Himself said: "The Son of Man is come to save that which is lost" (Matt. xviii. 11).  "I am not come to call the just, but sinners" (Matt. ix. 13).  In spite of His conscious preeminence as the sinless Son of God, our Lord spent His life by choice among the poor and ignorant, without ever humbling them by His condescension.  One of the signs whereby He was recognized as the Messias was the fact that He was to preach "the Gospel to the poor" (Matt. xi. 5)

Christ always speaks of the Church as a Society composed of the good and the wicked.  He compares it to a field in which cockle grows with the wheat (Matt xiii. 24-30); to a net containing good and bad fishes (Matt xiii. 47); to a barn containing chaff as well as wheat; to wise and foolish virgins (Matt xxv. 1-12).  St. Paul also speaks of a "great house having vessels not only of gold and silver, but also wood and earth; or honor and dishonor" (2 Tim. ii. 20).  And St. John writes to remind us we are all sinners: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John i. 8)

(The Question Box.  page 124-125)

The question, presented in 1929 sounds very much like what a person scandalized today would ask.  The reply certainly cannot be considered "Spirit of Vatican II."

As we can see, the Church recognized that there were sinners within her, but also that the role of the Church was not merely the expulsion of the sinner, but the seeking of the redemption of the sinner within her.

Two Opposite Errors We Must Beware

Now, does this mean that those who are offended by the public obstinacy of certain fellow Catholics are to just "shut up and take it?"  By no means.  However this is one of two errors which people are deceived by to question or reject the idea of submission to the Church.  The other error is, "Stop judging us.  We can do what we want!"

The first error is an error because it assumes an either-or position.  We must either drive out all the sinners from the Church or else tolerate all sin in the Church.  This is not the case.  We must recognize that the existence of unrepentant sinners and weak ministers within the Church is not a new phenomenon.  The free will, tainted by original sin, means that people will be inclined to selfishness and concupiscence.  The Church exists to lead all people both within and without to Christ.  Some members of the Church may ignore her teachings to their peril, but the only way the Church could prevent this would be if she had the power to overwrite the free will God has given humanity.  In other words, the Church would have to treat free men like "slaves in chain gangs" (as CS Lewis put it).

The second error is the error because because it assumes that from the fact we have free will, there is no moral problem with doing anything we wish.  Christ has shown us the error of this view: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15).  God has taught certain things are never to be done and certain things are right only in certain conditions.  What God has decreed, man may not overturn on his own.  This is why dissent is so foolish.  It argues that the Church gets it wrong while the individual knows better… ignoring the requests for the basis of authority of their claim.

The Issue of Enforcement

I suspect what makes this so contentious is the issue of enforcing the teachings of the Church.  Yes indeed, we have some people who create vapid, and sometimes heretical "liturgies."  We have politicians who openly support things the Church condemns as evil, and people want to know "Why doesn't the Church excommunicate these people?"

The problem is, this question indicates a misunderstanding on when and where excommunication is used.  The Church has reserved excommunication for very few cases.  Canon Lawyer, Edward Peters writes about it as follows [links to canons added]:

Under current canon law, only certain crimes are directly punishable by excommunication.  They are: apostasy, heresy or schism (c. 1364); desecration of the Eucharist (c. 1367); physical attack on the pope (c. 1370) absolution of an accomplice (c. 1378); simulated celebration of Mass or confession (c. 1378); the unauthorized consecration of bishops (c. 1382) violation of the sacramental seal by the confessor or others (c. 1388) and procuring abortion (c. 1398).  One can easily see that these types of offenses are those that could cause great disturbance in the Church….

…the main point is that excommunication is limited to only a few, very serious and well-defined offenses. (Excommunication and the Catholic Church page 12)

This shows that people are not excommunicated from the Catholic Church for every sin.  However, this does not permit people in mortal sin from presenting themselves to communion either.  Canon Law says:

Can.  916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

The reader is reminded that perfect contrition means being truly sorry for having done these acts and wanting to turn away from them.  So for the pro-abortion politician to be repentant, it means he regrets what he has done and will seek to make amends for the evil done.

Now it is true that when the public sinner does not exclude himself, the Church is to turn away the person who is persisting in grave sin:

Can.  915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

It is tragic that not all the priests or bishops carry out the enforcement of this requirement (it is witness that there are sinners within the Church).  However, we must remember that this is a failing on the part of the individual priest or bishop and is emphatically not a Vatican policy.

Is it frustrating to see certain sinners behaving in this way publically without being seeing a correction?  Of course it is.  However, our lack of awareness as to what is done does not mean nothing is done (That's an argument from silence fallacy). 

We do have to remember what St. Paul has said in Galatians 6:

7 Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows,

8 because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit.

Even if the Church is unable to bring about the conversion of the manifest sinner, the unrepentant sinner will indeed answer for the sins they commit.

The Danger to the Catholic Seeking to Follow Christ

Now of course no faithful Catholic should approve of or remain silent over abuses and dissent within the Church.  However, when we consider the view we should take, we need to be aware of a real danger we need to avoid.

There is a danger to the faithful Catholic who sees the public scorning of Church teaching by dissenters and grows angry, and that is the danger of forgetting his own need of salvation.  We must be on guard against the Devil whispering to us about how "everybody but us" is a sinner and the Church would be better if it was run as we would have it. 

Instead we must remember that God desires the salvation of the dissenter as well.  This doesn't mean "ignore the sin."  It does mean we must not become prideful or contemptuous to other sinners even when we must oppose the wrong that they do.

This is something Christ warned us of in Luke 18:

10 “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.

11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.

12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

13 But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisee did the things he spoke of.  The tax collector was a sinner.  That wasn't the point.  The point was the tax collector recognized his sinfulness.  If we are faithful in our service to Christ, we do need to recognize our sinfulness and to repent, depending on God.

Another danger we need to beware of is the resentment that the sinner seems to be treated lightly instead of "getting what they deserve" as Christ pointed out in Luke 15:

25 Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing.

26 He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.

27 The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.

29 He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.

30 But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’

31 He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.

32 But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”

The "Older Brother Syndrome" has the case where the one who was faithful feels resentment over all the commotion concerning the sinner.

Those who are faithful to God will of course be rewarded for their fidelity, but the danger is becoming so angry at the sins of the prodigal that one forgets God does not desire the death of the sinner, but their salvation.  If God calls on us to be merciful with the sinner because He has been merciful to us, it will go badly for us if we will not merciful to those who offend us, as He pointed out in Matthew 18:

23 That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.

24 When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.

25 Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.

26 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’

27 Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

28 When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’

29 Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

30 But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.

31 Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.

32 His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.

33 Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’

34 Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.

35 So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

We must not forget, when dealing with scandals and dissident behavior within the Church that God has forgiven us, and we must forgive others as well.  This doesn't mean let them walk over you unrepentant, or ignore those who seek to distort what the Church teaches.  Heresy and disobedience must be opposed always.

However it does mean we cannot take the attitude that we can simply throw out those who are sinners and consign them to Hell and all will be well.


The person who thinks I am calling for indifference within the Church when it comes to the obstinate sinner, or dismissing the concerns of those troubled by dissent within the Church has missed the point of what I wish to say. 

I am not saying this at all.  I am pointing out that the Church exists to bring Christ's salvation to the world, and that all of us are sinners.  As Christians, our task is to pray for the sinner that he might have a change of heart and be saved.

If we follow the example of the prayer of the Pharisee, if we refuse to show compassion like the Debtor Servant, if we think the Prodigal Son should be forever excluded, we are not following the way of our Lord.

We are to hate the sin, but love the sinner, which means that we are not to look disdainfully down on them, but rather, by our prayers and actions, seek to help each other.

The Church is not an exclusive club for the perfect, and we should not denounce the Magisterium for not treating the Church as if it was.  It may bother some of us to see that the wicked seem to act without repercussion.  However, when stirred to anger.  There are some things the Church cannot do simply because Christ has not given her the power to do so.  In these cases, where it pains us to see the dissenter flaunting his defiance, let us trust in God's power and authority to judge the wicked and remember Psalm 37:

1 Of David.

Do not be provoked by evildoers;

do not envy those who do wrong.

2 Like grass they wither quickly;

like green plants they wilt away.

3 Trust in the LORD and do good

that you may dwell in the land and live secure.

4 Find your delight in the LORD

who will give you your heart’s desire.

5 Commit your way to the LORD;

trust that God will act

6 And make your integrity shine like the dawn,

your vindication like noonday.

7 Be still before the LORD;

wait for God.

Do not be provoked by the prosperous,

nor by malicious schemers.

8 Give up your anger, abandon your wrath;

do not be provoked; it brings only harm.

9 Those who do evil will be cut off,

but those who wait for the LORD will possess the land.

10 Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more;

look for them and they will not be there.

11 But the poor will possess the land,

will delight in great prosperity.

12 The wicked plot against the just

and grind their teeth at them;

13 But the LORD laughs at them,

knowing their day is coming.

14 The wicked draw their swords;

they string their bows

To fell the poor and oppressed,

to slaughter those whose way is honest.

15 Their swords will pierce their own hearts;

their bows will be broken.

16 Better the poverty of the just

than the great wealth of the wicked.

17 The arms of the wicked will be broken;

the LORD will sustain the just.

18 The LORD watches over the days of the blameless;

their heritage lasts forever.

19 They will not be disgraced when times are hard;

in days of famine they will have plenty.

20 The wicked perish,

the enemies of the LORD;

Like the beauty of meadows they vanish;

like smoke they disappear.

21 The wicked borrow but do not repay;

the just are generous in giving.

22 For those blessed by the Lord will possess the land,

but those accursed will be cut off.

23 Those whose steps are guided by the LORD;

whose way God approves,

24 May stumble, but they will never fall,

for the LORD holds their hand.

25 Neither in my youth, nor now in old age

have I ever seen the just abandoned

or their children begging bread.

26 The just always lend generously,

and their children become a blessing.

27 Turn from evil and do good,

that you may inhabit the land forever.

28 For the LORD loves justice

and does not abandon the faithful.

When the unjust are destroyed,

and the children of the wicked cut off,

29 The just will possess the land

and live in it forever.

30 The mouths of the just utter wisdom;

their tongues speak what is right.

31 God’s teaching is in their hearts;

their steps do not falter.

32 The wicked spy on the just

and seek to kill them.

33 But the LORD does not leave the just in their power,

nor let them be condemned when tried.

34 Wait eagerly for the LORD,

and keep to the way;

God will raise you to possess the land;

you will gloat when the wicked are cut off.

35 I have seen ruthless scoundrels,

strong as flourishing cedars.

36 When I passed by again, they were gone;

though I searched, they could not be found.

37 Observe the honest, mark the upright;

those at peace with God have a future.

38 But all sinners will be destroyed;

the future of the wicked will be cut off.

39 The salvation of the just is from the LORD,

their refuge in time of distress.

40 The LORD helps and rescues them,

rescues and saves them from the wicked,

because in God they take refuge.

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